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Catching a Glimpse of America's Industrial Past

Catching a Glimpse of America's Industrial Past

Bill Worthington, a museum specialist in the engineering archives, is surrounded by thousands of files and photographs of work from bygone eras. "We get collections from engineering firms and individual engineers," he said as he led me through a warren of file cabinets and drawers. "We send out the word through engineering societies. After James Forgie, the tunnel engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad, died, his stuff was left out on the curb with the trash. His life's work. But some passing engineer spotted it and saved it. It's all his drawings and photographs of work on the tunnels into Manhattan around 1910. The best part is his comments written in the margins. Those alone make it really valuable to us."

We looked into the 94 cases that contain the works of Ralph Modjeski and Frank Masters, prominent early 20th-century engineers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, whose firm still exists. We saw the files of John Roebling's Sons, the company that made the wire for countless suspension bridges (John Roebling had himself designed the Brooklyn Bridge), and photographs of the old-time steam engines built by Bruno Nordberg of Milwaukee, and the railroad bridges of George Morison. It was Morison who persuaded Theodore Roosevelt to choose Panama for the route of the isthmian canal. At the time, other routes, notably one through Nicaragua, were favored by some.

"We have a diary by an engineer who surveyed that route and drew his own map of it," Worthington added.

Poring over old photographs, tracings and blueprints of bridges from Richmond to Boston, I asked how many of the bridges were still around.

"Oh, they're nearly all gone. They were simply too light. The size of locomotives and rolling stock increased so much in the 1890s that a lot of important bridges were just torn down, even though some of them were quite new. Most were wrought iron, though some were steel. Today they're reinforced concrete and steel."

One charming picture shows a dozen locomotives lined up on the Northern Pacific Railroad bridge in Bismarck, North Dakota. It was a test of load capacity, a rather expensive one it seemed to me, had it failed.

There are tens of thousands of pictures here. The construction of Penn Station in New York and the tunnel that led to it. An insurance map of the Uxbridge cotton mill in Massachusetts, in color. The entire archive of Lockwood Greene Company, 1880 to 1960. The complete drawings of the Burlington Bridge of 1868, which spanned the Mississippi River in Iowa. It's a remarkable document, with the dimensions and every detail, including charts showing the stress on each member, all calculated out, all done by hand.

"And there are photographs of the pile drivers and other equipment used to build it," says Worthington. "This was three years after the Civil War ended. Oh, it's long gone."

One album containing images of every construction along the Baltimore and Ohio line between Baltimore and Philadelphia, circa 1891, was preserved only because an engineer used the backs of the pages for personal pictures. His family pictures have been removed, but the names written under these lost snapshots are still there.

One shot of a stone bridge shows the photographer's handcar waiting on the tracks, the kind two people operated by pumping up and down. Those are gone, too. They used to be a great feature of the comics.

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